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    Geoff Russell, chief executive of the Skills Funding Agency, considers what's been going on behind the scenes ahead of the start of term.

    It's that time again, new term starting, sharp pencils and clean notebooks – or possibly hard drives.

    With exam results duly celebrated or commiserated up and down the land, FE's valued 'customers' turn to their local colleges and training organisations in their hundreds of thousands. You will, I know, be ready to receive them and give them the best possible learning opportunities. But both you and I know your work doesn't just start now. Throughout the year much has been underway to create the right environment to make the new term possible, both behind your doors and in the wider FE world.

    In my last column I talked about the importance of 'success'. I want to dwell for a few moments on some thorny challenges that have always been around where we both need to make further progress in order to enable more success.

    One of these is helping to communicate to learners what they might be capable of so they make the right learning (and life) choices; a second is providing an environment that will attract the widest possible range of learners.

    As to the first, it's vital that we provide access to comprehensive, high quality advice. Colleges and providers do this every day. For our part, we fund and administer Next Step, the national service that offers impartial careers advice. As you may know it's available free here; over the phone; and with a local adviser face-to-face. All the Next Step advisers are professionally qualified to provide careers advice to every visitor to the service, whatever their qualification, skill level or employment status, helping millions to move into work or move on in work - and life.

    We will also launch the National Careers Service in April 2012 as announced by John Hayes, Minister of State for Further Education and Lifelong Learning. This will provide a single point of access online and over the phone for young people and adults, including a network of organisations providing face to face guidance to adults in the community. It will provide access to accurate and user-friendly information on careers and opportunities, including Apprenticeships. Courses, work-based learning and sources of funding will also be covered.

    And from next month there's an important development as people will be able to open a Lifelong Learning Account from the Next Step website too, enabling them to make more informed choices about skills and careers. This will give access to a range of information and tools to match personal circumstances and needs, the results of which can be saved in a secure, private and easily accessible space. It's a great facility, so do take a look and encourage your learners to open one at

    On my second challenge – attracting a wide range of learners by making them feel comfortable - as a sector, we're doing pretty well in supporting social mobility and inclusiveness. But I am pretty sure there is more to do and the recent ugly events on the streets of our cities owe something to this particular challenge.

    On the mobility front, my strongly held view is that skills should be at the heart of every community's strategy and the Government is committed to making that happen with its vision for the Big Society. The Adult and Community Learning Fund, which we are running in partnership with NIACE, will help some of the most disadvantaged groups of adults take their first steps to learning new skills, sparking their interest in learning as a way to improving their prospects.

    How skills are funded also plays an important role in creating a fairer society. We have given the choice of what to provide and to whom to colleges and providers – and we have protected funding for training for those with basic skills needs or on benefits, as well as Adult and Community Learning.

    And I cannot resist emphasising that the Outcome Incentive Payment that we are piloting is precisely about incentivising colleges and providers to help more people progress into work or while at work. But we should not lose sight of the fact that there are some 400,000 unemployed FE learners already in the system.

    Apprenticeships also have a major role to play and last month, the Prime Minister announced details of a £25 million fund to support up to 10,000 Higher Apprenticeship places. These will give apprentices access to high profile and sustainable employment, a higher earning capacity and provide valuable work skills, as well as sector and professional skills. This programme will sit along side the 40,000 Apprenticeships already announced for those that are not in education, employment or training.

    And of course, mobility and inclusion are not unrelated. The Agency's draft Single Equality Scheme is our commitment to support progress in helping FE appeal to everyone. A recent example is that we have been looking at how to create an FE environment that would be more attractive for learners with different sexual orientations and gender identities. Early results show that there is much to celebrate already and I'm pleased that the experience of survey respondents, including past, current and potential learners is mostly positive. However, there are recommendations for change that will help create an even more inclusive environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender learners. You can read more about the research here

    So as the new term starts and new learners arrive, we should celebrate the enormous amount that FE has achieved and will continue to achieve for the economy and society – but let us also sharpen our own pencils and ponder what more we can do together to communicate and deliver the magic of FE to the broadest possible range of customers.

    Geoff Russell is Chief Executive of the Skills Funding Agency, a partner organisation of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

    Read other FE News articles by Geoff Russell:

    Game, Set, Match

    Nurturing the buds of ambition

    Skills are the vital passport to jobs

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